After an uncertain future the new museum has secured new premises on the seafront in Swanage. © Swanage Museum.
Three months ago Swanage Museum looked doomed. Having suffered falling visitor numbers it was then forced to close because of structural damage. With money for renovation work looking increasingly unlikely, things were not looking good, permanent closure was on the cards.
However, after a miraculous two months, far from closing, the museum is now looking forward to entering new premises and hoping to modernize its collection.
The turnaround was largely down to a creative collaboration between the museum and two local authorities.
“This really is about cooperation. How you can take something that looks dead in the water and actually save it,” commented Dave Tucker, County Museums Advisor for Dorset. “You have got a charity, two local authorities and hopefully money from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) working together to save the museum.”
The Swanage collection was housed in the Tithe Barn, a Grade II listed building dating from the 17th century. Whilst a beautiful setting, the building had become structurally unsafe and required extremely expensive repair work.
The museum's former location at the Tithe Barn was too too tucked away and too costly to maintain. © Swanage Museum.
Due to the changing nature of tourism in the area the Tithe Barn location was receiving fewer visitors. Coupled with complications surrounding the barn's ownership, this meant that a grant application to fund repair work had little chance of success.
Moving the museum was the only option and the staff prepared a long-term plan. Whilst a move to the seafront would be ideal, it was also going to be extremely expensive. The reopening of the museum seemed a very distant prospect, until staff took a gamble with the local authority.
“We approached Purbeck District Council expecting to be laughed at,” said Mr. Tucker, “and asked if there was any way they could help Swanage Museum or give them a home somewhere.”
Far from being laughed at, the district council was keen to cooperate and agreed upon a plan to house the museum in one of its sites on the seafront. Swanage Heritage Centre is in a prime location and receives more than 40,000 visitors a year. The district council agreed to sacrifice space there to accommodate the musuem.
The new location may be able to atract upwards of 40,000 visitors a year. © Swanage Museum.
“It is a really great example of a district council without a huge amount of resources, and a museum without a huge amount of resources putting their bit together,” said Mr Tucker. “The move will strengthen the Heritage Centre and save the museum.”
As County Museums Advisor Dave Tucker is responsible for all the museums in Dorset, but he explained why this project has particular appeal:
“Swanage Museum is interesting for me because it is my favourite place. I had all my childhood holidays there and I always wanted to live in Dorset. Now I have ended up as advisor to the museum in my favourite place!”
The operation for the move was all on a shoestring at this stage, and the main objective was to save the museum. However a further grant application to HLF to support the move looks set to succeed. The excellent visitor figures for the new site and combined strength of the two attractions mean that funding may be available to upgrade the museum's display areas.
“We are making it pound for pound probably the most effective museum in the county,” said Mr Tucker. “It will be housed in partnership with a district authority and will have at least 40,000 people walking in there every year.”
The bigger picture is that Swanage is right at the eastern end of the Jurassic Coast, England’s first natural World Heritage Site. The new location and refurbishment of the museum will provide Dorset with a really strong site at one end of this coast. It just goes to show that with a bit of cooperation everyone can be a winner.
Rory Trust is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the South West. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.